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New approach could mean break-even nuclear fusion reactions within 2-3 years

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November 15, 2010

An aluminum z-pinch target tube installed in the Z machine at Sandia Labs

An aluminum z-pinch target tube installed in the Z machine at Sandia Labs

Even with all the developments taking place in the areas of alternative energy such as solar and wind power, nuclear fusion still remains the holy grail of clean electricity generation. However, after decades of worldwide research costing billions of dollars, the goal of achieving “net-gain,” where more energy is produced than is required to trigger the fusion chain reaction, still remains elusive. Now researchers at Sandia Labs are claiming a breakthrough that could see break-even fusion reactions in as little as two to three years.

Research into producing energy from seawater using controlled nuclear fusion is taking place on a number of different fronts. To bring two light atomic nuclei together with enough force that they fuse, resulting in a heavier nucleus and a large amount of energy, some approaches are looking at the use of powerful lasers, while others are focusing on superconducting magnets called tokamaks, in what is known as Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF).

Z-pinch

Yet another approach involves Z-pinch – a type of plasma confinement system that uses an electrical current in the plasma (essentially a cloud of ions) to generate a magnetic field that compresses it. The pinch method, which Sandia calls a dark-horse contender in the fusion race, contracts plasma so suddenly and tightly that hydrogen isotopes from seawater, placed in a capsule within the plasma, should fuse.

Until now, instabilities known as magneto-Rayleigh-Taylor (MRT) instabilities, which arise wherever electromagnetic forces are used to pinch plasma, have proven an impediment to the process. This instability rapidly crimps the cylindrically contracting plasma until it resembles a string of sausages or some other equally useless shapes, thereby causing a loss of the perfect symmetry of forces necessary to fuse the material.

So although fast Z-pinches, which take place in less than 100 nanoseconds, have already proven successful in creating fusion, (as evidenced by the production of some neutrons), MRT instability has been a major reason that not enough neutrons have been produced to provide a source of reliable electrical power.

Wires vs solid aluminum liner

Traditionally, scientists would use an array of spidery wires to create a compressed, X-ray generating ion cloud. The X-rays were then used to compress the fusion fuel. The wires were known to be the source of the MRT problem, because even minute dips in a current carrying surface – imperfections merely 10 nanometers in amplitude – can grow exponentially in amplitude to millimeter scales.

Because it was impossible to reliably reproduce such imperfections with the wires to allow them to study the instability, Sandia researcher Steve Slutz suggested that the magnetic pinching forces could be used to directly fuse fuel by compressing a solid aluminum liner around fusion material preheated by a laser.

Whereas accurate etching wasn’t an option for the fragile wire arrays, the researchers could etch the aluminum liner, creating instabilities to whatever degree they desired, thereby allowing them to measure the growth of MRT instabilities. This new data could then be used to create more accurate simulations and enable the researchers to better tweak the conditions of future Z firings, more effectively combating the effect of the instability.

The researchers believe that with thick liners and control of the MRT, the Z machine could achieve an output of 100 kilojoules to match the 100 kilojoules input in as little as two or three years.

“That would be scientific break-even,” said project lead Daniel Sinars. “No one has achieved that.”

The Sandia Labs research is reported in a paper in the October 29 issue of Physical Review Letters.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
11 Comments

Nuclear fusion reseach has been making false promises to to public since the mid 1960's where they claimed that you would not even need a meter on your house because the electricity was going to be so cheap. It is time for the public to stop funding this research and put the money into something that after 50 years is now trying to sell that it will 'break even'.

bobh
16th November, 2010 @ 04:51 am PST

Pretty short sighted...

"Electricity so cheap you wouldn't even need a meter" sounds like a goal worth generations of effort to me. Better than throwing all our scientific resources into deep water drilling in the gulf, for example.

I think what this culture needs is more scientific holy grails like that, not less.

Facebook User
16th November, 2010 @ 09:34 am PST

Who says to "throw all our scientific resouces into deep water drilling"? There are many other sources that could provide all of the energy we need. A combination of wind, solar, hydro, tidal, ocean thermal, geothermal and even things like cellulosic ethanol could be a completely workable scheme. Maybe you like billions of dollars spent on a "holy grail" when other technologies are not only within reach, but actually on the market, but not all of us like throwing good money after bad.

Gadgeteer
16th November, 2010 @ 04:06 pm PST

Article states:

"...already proven successful in creating fusion, (as evidenced by the production of some neutrons)."

...and therefore worth pursuing-- science takes time.

myimzadi
16th November, 2010 @ 07:22 pm PST

I'm all for the pursuit of fusion power, but not because I think it is an energy holy grail. In a very real sense, these projects lead to in-depth and fundamental understandings of the basic interactions of materials and field dynamics.

That said, if we spent this money on grants (lets abandon ineffective tax breaks that require kickbacks already) to put solar panels and small wind turbines on rooftops, or even on designing buildings around collecting and maintaining their own energy, we would be significantly better off as a society. Given the amazingly short time-line to the -dramatic- decline of non-renewable oil availability, we need to begin implementing what we have and move some of the lofty design goals to a smaller table for a bit.

Charles Bosse
17th November, 2010 @ 10:35 am PST

Cathedrals in Europe took centuries to build. The grandson of a craftsman who started building the structure would be lucky to see its completion. "Medieval life was extremely uncertain; life expectancy was short, resources were few, populations small and ever-changing due to incidents of plague and disease and often, finances were lacking. How cathedrals were built at all in these circumstances is amazing." -Suite101.com

Hundreds of years committed to creating a fantistic testiment to what man at the time could do, and for some reason, now people are complaining that decades are too long, even when the reward is a solution to satiating the populations ever increasing demand for power at a reasonable price. Where did patience go? What happened to attention spans?

GeoMoon5
17th November, 2010 @ 12:43 pm PST

Too funny. People actually want to abandon fusion research because it is "taking to long?"

There is another dimension to achieving fusion energy - energy density.

No other energy source could provide the energy density associated with fusion. The repercussions of conquering fusion energy production would reach much further than what solar,wind, tidal, geothermal, or any other source can yield.

It is not hard to understand, the source of energy for our entire civilizations existence and most of the organisms on the planet is the sun. What is the that powered by?

chards
19th November, 2010 @ 10:13 am PST

> "not all of us like throwing good money after bad."

We've subsidized renewable energy to the tune of ~ $60bn. Unfortunately we've subsidized fossil fuels by ~ $550bn. That's half a trillion tax dollars literally up in smoke.

Nuclear fission is great as far as it goes, but if we switched all base-load generation to it, we'd be out of fuel in a year. Heavy investment in renewables is the only sane choice.

Synchro
25th November, 2010 @ 03:29 pm PST

Fusion research has received a few billion dollars worldwide in over 40 years. There are 7 billion people on the earth. How much is that per person per year?

We've been insanely stingy with fusion research. Fusion is the most concentrated source of power within our reach and the most abundant in the known universe. Nuclear fission is the 2nd best. The more concentrated the power, the more work we can get done with our available manpower. The more work we can get done, the better our ability to overcome deadly cosmic events and avoid extinction.

Green energy is for dinosaurs! With wind and solar, geothermal and tidal power, biomass and other forms of low-density piddle-power, we'll never get off planet earth, nor will we be able to maintain the population of 7 billion already living on earth. If we "decarbonize" the economy, and don't switch to nuclear fission before we do that, we'll cut the human population to less than 1 billion, permanently, by starvation, exposure and squalor!

If we switch now to nuclear fission, breeder reactors and spent fuel reprocessing will give us a 1,000-year supply easily, because those two technologies allow us to fission the entire mass of natural uranium, and of natural thorium, and of all the transuranics produced in our nuclear reactors, leaving only fission products. Without breeders and reprocessing, we can only fission a fraction of the 0.7% of natural uranium (the isotope U-235), plus a small fraction of the "depleted" U-238 that is "bred" into plutonium in a regular, non-breeder reactor, and we can't use thorium at all. The once-through "waste" that we bury, plus the "depleted" uranium-238 from the enrichment process, together contains 99% of the power of the original uranium extracted from the mine. See http://larouchepac.com/nuclear.

Richard Burden
16th February, 2012 @ 06:19 pm PST

If you think fussion is just a pipe dream and can't be done just look to the sun and realize our entire existance is due to fussion power and our entire future does to.

Understanding fussion is understanding one of the great energy sources of the Universe. Every star is a natural fussion reactor and seeing how our star, the Sun, produces more energy in a second than all of mankind has every produced leads me to believe it's worth looking into if for no other reason than to understand the sun (which also happens to be the largest variable in predicting the weather).

One more thing and correct me if I'm wrong but isn't solar energy or solar panels just another way of collecting fussion energy much, much, much less efficiently?

Matt Fletcher
3rd April, 2012 @ 10:51 am PDT

The all scientific world were going towards wrong direction in fusion research.The basic approach of all attempt towards controlled fusion reactor (including ITER and NIF) is relied on accelerating the plasma ions and simultaneously confining them so that chances of fusion would increase.But this is wrong approach because no. of fusion depends on the probability that positive charged ions should in front of each other.moreover,confining plasma is useless task because by confining positive nuclei and electron rejoins.electron inside plasma also cause of various losses like bremsstrahlung and synchrotron losses. hence this approach never leads to break even condition or a workable reactor. if confining force is created by electrostatic repulsion force and electron are removed from plasma then fusion power can be utilized as power plant.this is the approach of my proposed fusion power plant design

Kapishwar Krishna
8th April, 2012 @ 12:53 am PDT
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